Slouching Towards Portland
On October 17, 2007, a Portland, Maine, middle school committee decided by a 7-2 vote to make birth control available to sixth, seventh and eighth grade students. In the heated debate that followed, parents found themselves at the edge of an intellectual and moral chasm. On one side are parents who assume their children will be sexually active. On the other are parents who want to protect their children’s lives and fragile moral sense and at the same time teach them that sex is sacred. Traditional-minded parents have to deal with a sexually permissive culture that makes it challenging on a daily basis to communicate their own moral code regarding sex. The Portland decision reflects the permissive culture, one that has lost sight of the moral dimension of human sexuality. Parents can find a helpful resource for discussing sexuality with their children in Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality. It is the only teaching that provides basic concepts to help children see that sex is not recreation but is God’s gift to adults in a marriage relationship.
Strengthening Moral Teaching at Home
Parents want to help their children understand and integrate their experience of sexuality. In the past parents could rely on schools to affirm good values and reinforce teachings given at home, but today that is often not the case. Schools all too often adopt unwise policies in the name of prudence that actually undermine true morality. Some schools teach elementary children how to use condoms and discuss homosexuality as a phase of finding one’s sexual identity. There are more than 1,700 school-connected health centers in the United States. One in four provides birth control, according to the National Assembly on School-Based Health Care. Parents often cannot change these policies and so they have to be more pro-active at home to offset the popular ideas about sexuality that often predominate in school cultures no easy task.
When we look closely at the assumptions of the middle school committee majority in this decision they are exclusively centered on health concerns, not the moral aspect of a child’s growth to maturity. Condoms have been available to these middle school children since 2000. The committee members reasoned that some children are going to be sexually active and need to be protected from the results of sexual activity, a pregnancy, or contracting sexually transmitted diseases. They reasoned the school-based health centers should be able to give this help with parents’ general permission but not necessarily with parents’ knowledge of a particular incident. Protecting sexually active children is what any responsible adult should do.
Sex is mainly thought of as a health issue today, after decades of wide acceptance of contraception. With the link between sex and babies broken, people’s understanding of sexuality, marriage, and parenthood is radically changed. Today sex is considered a recreational activity separate from marriage. One is never too young or too old for sex, the ads tell us. Marriage was once thought of as the only appropriate place for sex because it means a total gift of self that results in a new human community. Now for most people, sex is just another activity that even middle-schoolers may engage in.
Consequences of Ignoring the Moral Dimension
The culture that accepts contraception also accepts abortion, divorce and single motherhood. Because we have lost a sense of the sacred quality of marriage and sexuality it is no surprise that the human person and relationships are also devalued. Pope John Paul II reminded us in The Gospel of Life that people have lost the sense that contraception and abortion are gravely wrong. He said it points to a dangerous crisis of the moral sense “which is becoming more and more incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, even when the fundamental right to life is at stake.” (#58) He warned that if we do not call things by their proper name we will yield to compromises and be deceived. People speak euphemistically of “terminating a fetus” when it is killing a baby. When adults and parents cannot grasp or refuse to accept that sexual activity is inappropriate for children because they are immature in their understanding of love, they have fallen into the trap of deception as they did in Portland. By ignoring the moral dimension of “sexually active” children, these adults, instead of helping children, are depriving children of the moral ideas they need to become integrated persons.
Some parents seem to accept that children will find it difficult, if not impossible, to control their sexual urges and that self-mastery is too high a reach for them. To allow such a low standard for young children is a disgrace. If school policies endorse the lowest standards and encourage inappropriate behavior, families must be the source of a wholesome view of personal growth that is intellectual, moral and physical with respect for children’s sexuality. Children need good habits and the ability to think through and articulate their decisions as they grow into young adulthood. The high moral standard will most likely be found at home in family life and family discussions.
Parents’ Responsibility: Formation in Truth
Parents have to teach right and wrong and, in the area of sexuality, also teach the reasons for taking a stand on say, not going steady with someone too early. Making this type of decision in a culture that is pressing toward sexual freedom requires thought, prudence, courage and, today, making the moral argument. A young person with a strong moral sense has to be savvy and be able to explain his position. Children’s formation includes their family experience of love and relationships and their spiritual formation that familiarizes them with being a child of God, of making choices pleasing to God and rejecting sin. They should learn to see the human body, male and female, as a sign or sacrament of the person. The Catholic insight is that the body and the person are a unity and one expresses the other. We are not all body or all soul but a unity of both. Parents have to talk to their children about Catholic teaching and the reasons they are good. Armed with experience and good reasoning children can resist cultural views, think for themselves, and defend themselves against attacks in school.
Some parents do not know that their children are sexually active and we can assume that many parents do not talk to their children about sexuality. They are too busy with the cares of life and do not take the time for that formative conversation. They probably rely on the school to do their job. Even in church one cannot be assured of sound teaching. The Episcopal church is breaking up over the decision by its leaders to ordain a homosexual bishop. Orthodox Catholic teaching takes sexuality seriously, placing it in its proper focus as an objective moral good that requires our careful attention.
Love as Gift
Pope Benedict XVI in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), said that we are made for love and the love between a man and a woman is a beautiful gift for which we need to be prepared. The Church is in favor of sex, not sex reduced to a casual physical experience with multiple partners, but as expressed in a relationship of love and rooted in a life-long commitment.
Children need to see their parents’ love for each other and have them talk about it. Christopher West, in his book The Love that Satisfies, a reflection on Pope Benedict’s encyclical, points out that God invites us to an authentic experience of love and we need to beware of counterfeits. Children who feel loved can take to heart the truth that they are created in the image of God. Parents can hold up to them virtues, especially purity and courage, that go with that high calling. Children also know the experience of sin and forgiveness even at a young age. They can experience a level of personal freedom in choosing to do the right thing and be encouraged to aim higher. Parents need to point out to them what is real love and what is a counterfeit.
Mary Beth Bonnaci in Real Love explains to young people that the emotions that accompany sex are complicated and create a strong bond between husband and wife to help them live out their commitment. She tells them, “Sex is not something you can just ‘do’ with your body and leave your brain at the door. Sexual activity is powerful, and it has profound emotional consequences.” (p. 32, 33)
Hearing these truths from parents and adults can help children think about their conversations and friendships and figure out the right choice, the better choice, when faced with trying social situations.
Religious people do have rules and prohibitions about sex; but that does not mean that they are against sex. Rather they know this great and beautiful gift of God must be protected from tarnishing and belittling because it is from God and leads to God.
The Church’s elevated understanding of human love restored by Christ’s grace and destined for eternity calls us to overcome our selfishness and restore the sense of love as self-gift. Every generation needs to rediscover this view of the human person and today the family plays a critical role in passing on this great truth. Children without this experience will fall victim to the lies and deceits of an over-sexed culture without a life-jacket of rules and well-argued prohibitions. This is not a good way to begin life.
Portland opted for the dark side of the chasm. The light of truth is shining on the other side.
Mary Ellen Bork is married to Judge Robert Bork and lives in McLean, Virginia. She is a member of the Voices editorial board and is a board member of the John Carroll Society and Women Affirming Life.
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